Why Good News for the Ozone is Bad News for the Climate

By Steve Breyman, Truthout | News Analysis –


This undated image provided by NASA shows the ozone layer over the years: September. 17, 1979, [top left]; October 7, 1989, [top right]; October 9, 2006, [lower left]; and October 1, 2010, [lower right]. (Image: The Earth Observatory / NASA)

We live in a world hungry for good environmental news. But that’s no excuse for journalistic or scientific spin passing as an unvarnished victory for the environment, nor for exaggeration of the value of a narrowly focused environmental treaty as a model for a universal agreement.

The “good news” arrived via the Associated Press on September 11: Thanks to the Montreal Protocol, atmospheric ozone is recovering. Scientists have been monitoring atmospheric ozone since 1989, the year the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete Ozone (a protocol to the Vienna Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer) came into effect (it was negotiated in 1987). The scientists released their latest assessment on September 10, the subject of the Associated Press report.

Some background is in order. The Montreal Protocol is important on its own merits. A world of thinning atmospheric ozone is a world of increased skin cancer, eye problems and reduced agricultural yields and phytoplankton production. Every member state of the United Nations ratified the Protocol. But it is as a model for climate change negotiations and agreement that it takes on greater importance. The successful negotiation of the Montreal Protocol required agreement among policymakers, scientists and corporations, as will the replacement for the Kyoto Protocol.

The original Montreal Protocol achieved iconic status – Kofi Annan called it “perhaps the single most effective international agreement to date” – because it phased out production of five chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) known to destroy atmospheric ozone. CFCs were most widely used as refrigerants, solvents, blowing agents and fire extinguishers, as are their substitutes today. There have been five effectiveness-improving amendments to the original Protocol.

The Protocol and its amendments were possible for five reasons:

First, given the phase-in of the phase-out (zero production and use of the five CFCs was not required until 1996) DuPont, the dominant firm in the business, had time to research and manufacture the economical and less destructive substitute hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), and the nondestructive hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), even though it had to be pushed hard to do so. Lacking a chlorine atom, HFCs do not attack the ozone layer. HFCs and HCFCs are also less persistent in the atmosphere than CFCs, from two to 40 years for the former, to up to 150 years for the latter.

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Reprinted with permission